Corporate Greenwashing and How to Avoid it

Consumers often voice concerns about greenwashing by organizations, but organizations can also fall victim to greenwashing. In this article, we explore what greenwashing is, why it happens, and what organizations can do to avoid greenwashing in their sustainability journeys.  

The growth of greenwashing amidst the call for sustainability 

In response to concerns about climate change and resource depletion, nations around the globe have developed strategies and benchmarks with promises to move towards more sustainable lifestyles. 

To match the specific environmental and economic conditions of the region, many Middle Eastern nations have their own green initiatives, such as the UAE’s Energy Strategy 2050 and the Net Zero 2050 Charter, or Saudi Arabia’s transformation programs within its Vision 2030. These initiatives make important commitments, e.g., the UAE Energy Strategy aims to reduce its carbon footprint by 50% and convert 50% of its energy sources to renewable ones.

Fulfilling such commitments takes the collective effort of all the individuals in a region, but mainly businesses operating in the region that can cooperate to drive change often more effectively than even governments can. 

This governmental and social pressure, paired with the competitive advantage and savings afforded by sustainable practices, has created an environment whereby businesses both want and need to invest in sustainability.

In the journey to incorporate sustainability and green practices into their business, many organizations can be misled by greenwashing claims that do not actually provide them with concrete sustainability solutions and can in turn misinform their consumers as well.  

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing, a term coined in 1986, refers to misinformation communicated by organizations when promoting their goods or services, with the promise of their products being sustainable or eco-friendly.   

Why do organizations greenwash and why is it bad?

Organizations greenwash mainly to address consumer demand for sustainable solutions by targeting consumers who value environmental consciousness and are willing and able to purchase products that fit this lifestyle. 

To fulfill this demand, or appease this audience, organizations choose to communicate about their sustainability efforts. This kind of communication can be genuine and informative and not inherently greenwashing. There are even instances whereby organizations do not realize that they are participating in greenwashing. However, those that use marketing and advertising to overstate or lie about their sustainability efforts and sustainability levels of their products are greenwashing, and in harmful ways. Most organizations expect that greenwashing can provide them with an improved reputation and increased profits without considering the pitfalls or dangers associated.

 When it comes to society overall, greenwashing takes away from the real causes meant to be addressed by sustainability efforts, e.g., waste generation or pollution, therefore hindering progress.

 It has its disadvantages for organizations as well. Uncovering disparities between public promises and real impacts negatively affects the trust consumers have in organizations, and this eventually damages organizational reputation, and in turn market share 

How can you spot greenwashing?

Here are the key signs to look out for if you’re unsure if a claim is greenwashing or not.

  • Descriptions of sustainability efforts involve many buzzwords such as “natural” and “green” and “eco-friendly” without any measurable performance indicators to clarify how these terms are relevant. These could also include a lot of jargon from the fields of environmental science and sustainability that make it difficult for readers to understand goals and results.
  • Plans that are mainly limited to short-term tactics and quick gains which do not allow for sustainability to be achieved effectively.
  • Lack of transparency when it comes to certain parts of the business, or about any issues or mistakes made by the organization.
  • Use of vague figures that are difficult to understand out of context, instead of truly measurable impact. Unsupported claims are stated with no research completed on the feasibility of achieving these claims.
  • Commitments and claims are published but not followed up with. Greenwashing organizations often publish plans and strategies, but no results thereafter. Progress and results are not monitored often or published for investors or customers to refer to.

What does real sustainability look like?

 Organizations that are truly sustainable or that can offer you sustainable solutions show the following:

  •  Use of plain language to describe plans and results in a way that can be understood by a variety of audiences regardless of their background. Technical terms are broken down and explained and implications are clearly detailed.
  • Compliance with relevant regulations and laws, especially regional ones such as the National Media Council’s guidelines for advertising in the UAE.
  • Third party independent verification of sustainability efforts that can be achieved through implementing established and well-known third party audited sustainability standards such as LEED.
  • Transparency with the public regarding progress, even if commitments may not have been met as expected, with real data that can be compared with other organizations or with the organization’s own historical data.
  • A holistic look at the sustainability levels of all facets of a business, and not just a single product, service, or department.
  • Documentation of a thorough review of their initial status in relation to sustainability standards, using dependable tools such as a Life Cycle Assessment.
  • Clear planning with current status, tactics, strategy, key performance indicators, timelines, and contingency plans laid out.
  • Proper accountability shown with a team set in place to oversee sustainability efforts, as well as mention of their individual responsibilities.
  • Provision of timely progress updates that show frequent monitoring, adherence to previously set goals, improvements and modifications to the sustainability strategy, and a clear growth in sustainability. These updates should be in the form of clear reports that are made available to the public for reference.

Greenwashing can cause serious harm and derail the world’s progress towards sustainability. That’s why organizations need commitment and expert advice to avoid greenwashing and achieve sustainability the right way.

Want to know more about Alpin’s sustainability strategy or how we help other organizations develop their own strategies that work for them?

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